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Tuesday, March 20, 2001

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Versatile writer and patriot

KALKI (Tamil): R. Mohan; Sahitya Akademi, Rabindra Bhavan, 35, Ferozeshah Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 25.

R. KRISHNAMURTHY, POPULARLY known as ``Kalki'', died in December 1954 when he was only 55. It came as a shock to his large number of readers and admirers that despite spectacular progress made in healthcare, medical science could not save him and longevity could not be taken for granted. The same thought should have hit many in Tamil Nadu when two years later ``Devan'', reputed Executive Editor of the Ananda Vikatan, died when he was much younger at 43. A reason why the fiction of these great writers was lapped up by the readers of their time and still continue to be relished could well be that the world to which the skilled story-tellers took them was not merely just as real as the one they were actually living in. It was much richer and inviting with its mix of romance and tragedy. The spell of Kalki was so very irresistible that the readers were quite willing to respond with a willing suspension of disbelief when he could make Savitri in his Thyagabhoomi return later in the novel as Uma Rani unrecognisable to her father, Sambu Sastri, until he was summoned as a witness by the court. No other writer could have got away with such liberty Kalki could take with his readers. A very large number of readers would have felt very sad when Thyagabhoomi ended with the police vans taking them away as freedom fighters but not before Savitri and her hitherto estranged husband, Sridharan, could get glimpses of each other. It was a great moment created by Kalki to make the readers wait for him to resume the novel for bringing them together. If the world wept for Little Nell a century earlier when she died in The Old Curiosity Shop of Charles Dickens, it should have wept just as much for Savitri when she was ill-treated by her husband and later when the court verdict went against her.

The author gives us a very rich fare with his dissection of the great writings of Kalki as a freedom fighter who had the privilege of meeting Mahatma Gandhi and as a journalist and writer of fiction. The explanation Kalki had given for his writing under this pseudonym and recalled in this book is that he liked to fancy himself as the 10th avatar for bringing to light the evil deeds of the wicked. The reaction to such a projection of himself might have been nothing more than a journalist's urge to expose what was going on though it might also have been induced by a sense of self-importance.

Kalki's style, rich with its humour and simplicity, came as a fresh breeze to Tamil writing at a time when it continued to be very archaic. It is not, therefore, surprising that the pundits of his time, revelling in a literary style and making themselves unreadable, could not take kindly to Kalki and to which the author draws attention. His book is also free from the adulation of the others who had written on Kalki and he is of the view that the inordinate length of some of his writings had distorted the structure of the short story. Not all would agree with this view. It is worth pointing out here that the long duration of the short stories did not always tire the readers very much. An example of this is Bhavani B.A., B.L. which was serialised in Ananda Vikatan for several weeks with a surprise ending and it kept the readers waiting patiently from one instalment to another. It is also doubtful whether Kalki's humour would have sounded as amusing as he might have believed to the readers of his own era as one could see from the author's recollection of his comments about the ``To let'' signboards.

Of much greater interest is Kalki's fiction at which Mr. Mohan has taken a close look. The historical novels, Sivakamiyin Sabatham, Parthiban Kanavu and Ponniyin Selvan which would long be remembered and re-read should have demanded an unsparing research for bringing alive rulers, princesses and warriors who strode the stage more than a 1000 years ago. The literary richness as well as the minute attention given to detail which had gone into these novels makes them classics. He writes that the inspiration for these novels came from Kalki's reading of the fiction of Sir Walter Scott and Victor Hugo. The comparison he has drawn between Sivakamiyin Sabatham swinging between the two capitals, Kanchi and Vatapi, and the Tale of Two Cities of Charles Dickens is very apt. Among the other novels, Kalvanin Kathali ending in tragedy because of the fury filling the heroine as the result of a wrong suspicion the folly of which she belatedly realises would still leave a ring for the readers of an earlier generation.

The author's comments on Kalki as a music critic in the columns he wrote for Ananda Vikatan and his other contributions for the periodical are well-written. He has not mentioned the circumstances which led to Kalki's leaving the magazine brought about by the weekly's criticism of Rajaji for supporting Jinnah's demand for Pakistan in the early 1940s and the starting of his own weekly.

The vitriolic attacks which these two periodicals were making against each other would have recalled the rollicking account by Charles Dickens of the rival editors who called each other as ``vile and reptile contemporaries'' in his roaring Pickwick Papers. Attention must also be drawn to the graciousness of Ananda Vikan in publishing a series of articles, Kalki Valartha Thamizh on Kalki's greatness and its reproduction of his earlier writings immediately after his death. It was time to bury the hatchet and it was done movingly by the journal. It is, however, very odd that editors of Kalki seek to perpetuate his memory by repeatedly republishing his serials which had been written many years ago.

The author's writing is rather stilted and this might surprise readers if they had expected that he would have been influenced by Kalki's free and flowing style.

CVG

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